What To Do When Your Story Has Already Been Done Before

Fiction is a big place. Between all the genres and sub-genres filling the libraries and bookstores, there’s also movies and television to consider. And thanks to the Internet, it’s only going to get bigger. Either way, that’s a lot of ground to cover for writers. So what happens when you discover the idea you’ve been working on for months has been done before by someone else?

Step One: Don’t Panic.

While you should make every effort to read widely both in and outside of your genre, it’s very easy for something to slip through the cracks. When and if this happens, remember what you as the writer bring to the table is more important than the idea itself, no matter how original it sounds. Your story might still work, even if it is similar to another work. Take a deep breath. Keep an open mind, and prepare to takes things one step at a time.

Step Two: Don’t Read or Watch It (Yet).

Maybe you were told your young adult novel sounds like a lot like “Labyrinth”. Or you worried your zombie thriller reads a lot like “World War Z” (the book, not the movie). What do you do next? Your first instinct is probably to read or watch the similar work, but this isn’t always the best call. If you aren’t careful, you could end up self-consciously censoring yourself trying to eliminate the similarities – and cutting yourself off at the knees in the process. Instead, try to wait until you are at least done with an outline, or if you’re more of a pantser, the first draft, before you sit down and read or watch the material.

Step Three: Don’t Rewrite

As you have watched the work in question, your next thought might be to strip away all of the identical elements. Instead, give yourself time to dwell on and fully digest the story. Are you really doing the same thing? What are you trying to say? Try to look beneath the surface. Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” books are often compared to Koushun Takami’s “Battle Royale”, but ultimately, the two works have wildly different themes despite their extremely similar premises. In fact, the two works exist in almost completely different genres: “Hunger Games” is a YA dystopian science fiction, while “Battle Royale” is a brutal horror-thriller. There are certainly major similarities, and while people will make their comparisons and draw their own conclusions, but the two works ultimately stand on their own.

Ultimately, only you can decide if you want to continue your work or go back to the drawing board. Maybe what you are trying to say has been said before, in much of the same way, and it’s best to cut your losses. But more often than not, I think it’s best to see where this rabbit hole goes, even if the scenery starts to look familiar. Do you really need another reason not to write? Whether this is your breakout hit or just another learning experience, writing is more about finding your individual voice rather than telling a familiar tale.


There’s No Thing as Just Another Story

I know plenty of would-be writers held back by one missing element – originality. They insist originality is what will make their story stand out. Without it, they fear, their work will be just another story lost in the sea of voices in an already-crowded market. Originality is certainly important. You don’t want to have your name dragged through the mud over plagiarism allegations. You don’t want to put your energy into a concept that is already a tired old hat (for example, I once had someone pitch me a story where superheroes would be handled “seriously”. He’d never heard of Vertigo. Or “Watchmen”. Or the “Dark Knight Returns”.) But originality isn’t what makes a story worth telling, nor is it necessarily what makes a story stand out. It’s not about originality – it’s about authenticity.

Ultimately, the most important element of a story is you.

This is harder than it sounds. The only way to find your voice is write more stories, which you cannot do if you are constantly worried about originality. If you’re not careful, you’ll end up in a Catch-22. Ultimately, the only way to break the cycle is to write. This is why many authors actually encourage newbies to emulate their favorite writers, or at least put their own spin on their favorite myths and legends. While the frame work might be familiar, it’s the choices you make and the voice you use to tell the story which ultimately matters.

Stories can share many of the same elements and still be successful and effective in their own right. Both Larry Niven’s seminal “Ring World” and Microsoft’s bestselling Halo game series share the setting of a ring-shaped planet, yet both go in wildly different directions – with Niven’s work based on interstellar exploration and Halo the set-piece of an epic intergalactic war. The setting is the same. The genre is the same. But the voice and direction of the stories are ultimately very different, yet very successful.

Don’t underestimate what you bring to the table. Many times we spend so much energy on a work that we forget that it is the writer, not the story, that actually matters. Without the writer, the work cannot exist – because ultimately no one else can write the story like you will write it. Other writers might use similar settings, similar tropes or even identical settings – but no one can see the world exactly as you see it.


Reading: The Writer’s Best Tool

It’s the most underestimated asset in a writer’s toolbox, primarily because it’s so darn obvious. But obvious or not, if you are serious about being a writer, you need to read for a variety of reasons. Reading exists as an exercise in both industry and imagination, craft and creativity.

That said, there are plenty of reasons why we don’t read enough, and the biggest is time. On second shift, I can average about a book a week if I stay focused. That goes down to a book a month on first shift. I know plenty of serious writers who only get to flip through a couple pages of a book before they go to bed.

The good news is that reading a couple pages is ultimately all you need. As a infamous skimmer of books, I’ve long since learned it’s quality of reading, not quantity. Reading “War and Peace” in a day isn’t going to make you a better writer, but it does bring up another question: what should you reading?

The answer is simple: whatever you feel like writing. Be it science fiction and fantasy, romance, memoir, self-help, all or none of the above. There’s a few reasons for this. First, it shows you how it’s done (hopefully well, but writers can learn just as much if not more from a poorly-written book as they can be brilliantly executed one). Secondly, it gives readers a view of what’s been done in their chosen genre. Don’t make the potentially fatal mistake of thinking you know what’s out there simply by what’s been adapted to TV or movies – if you aren’t careful that story you’re working on might not be original at all (tune in next week for how to handle these implications).

Let’s say this all sounds great, but you are still convinced you can’t read. Maybe it’s a short attention span , a condition such as dyslexia or a general lack of interest in what’s out there. It still doesn’t matter, because there are plenty of options out there. Try reading short stories – from collections to literary magazines, there’s a wide variety of available. There’s also flash fiction – short short stories written with minimal word count for maximum effect. Daily Science Fiction is a great example of this.

Imagine a form of exercise which required consuming delicious morsels. That is what reading is – consuming and enjoying information for the benefit of your mind and imagination (unfortunately, we don’t have a physical equivalent yet.) If inspiration is the gasoline for our writing, reading is the motor oil – a little can go a long way, and ultimately, our imaginations runs a lot better as a result.




How to Bribe, Borrow and Steal The Most From Your Writing

I’ve got half a dozen boxes of Girl Scout Cookies, an upcoming convention and some unused PTO. I’m using all of these things with one goal in mind: getting the most out of my writing.

I haven’t exactly been enjoying the revision process of my new novel. If anything, I’ve been tempted to jump ship, and while I’ve decided that I’m going to start a new project sooner rather than later, I also feel I need to follow through with this stage of revision. Even if it is like pulling teeth.So with that in mind, I’m using the one thing left in my writer’s toolbox.

Bribery. Pure, unadulterated bribery.

Taking a page out of Brandon Sanderson’s playbook, I’m bribing myself to revise more. For every ten chapters revised, I’m dipping into those Girl Scout Cookies. If I get halfway through my revisions by the time I’m go to my con, I’m definitely going to come back with something awesome (and most likely Deadpool-shaped). And lastly, I’m going to take a staycation after I’m done with the revisions because, gosh-darned, I’ve earned it!

Even with those incentives, I’m still trying to stay realistic in the revision process. I’ve come to terms with the realization that a large portion of this manuscript will probably have to rewritten. And the best way to approach this rewriting is to get enough distance away from the manuscript to come back with fresh eyes. I tempted to use this as an excuse to run far, far away from this project – but I know the novel needs a revision before it needs a rewriting. Having some incentives in place keeps me anchored towards this end.

Ultimately, every writer has to do something they are not crazy about, whether its revisions, marketing or just plain monotony. It’s part of the struggle of being a productive writer. Whenever you arrive at this point, the only way around is through – even if it means beg, borrowing or stealing from your own temptations to achieve your goals.


Testing Grounds: How Fan Fiction Can Improve Your Writing

Full disclosure: I don’t write much fan fiction. I have a “Legend of Zelda” fanfic I wrote in high school that’s probably sitting on a forum somewhere. I have a “Centurions” story scrawled out in one of my notebooks. Beyond that, I don’t actually publish any fan fictions (though I know several writers who do). But I do use it – in my own way – to benefit my writing process.

The pros and cons of fan fiction are pretty obvious. I think fan fiction makes for excellent practice – you already have the setting, characters and rules of your world, and many times you have passionate communities willing to give you feedback. There’s even limited opportunities for publishing, like Amazon’s Kindle Worlds. On the other hand, some authors don’t take kindly to fan fiction, especially when the line between fan creation and plagiarism is blurred (like when it’s published). Most importantly, you could just as easily be developing your own project instead of unofficially writing in another author’s world.

When I say I don’t write fan fiction, what I mean is I don’t write it down physically. But I do think about it a lot. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved to tell myself stories. So that’s just what I do. I think about stories I’m probably never going to tell anyone. If I’ve feeling particularly inspired, I might write some of them down in a notebook, but that’s rare. Not writing these stories down leaves me free to mash up to the characters, rules and conventions of the world as much as I want. “The Incredibles” meets “Arkham Knight”? Done. “Sailor Moon” meets “The Clone Wars”? Go.

Some of these stories I muse about for a day or two and move on to something else. But there are some stories I keep coming back to, and those are the stories I find myself analyzing the most. I look at what’s working in that story in particular, and then I boil it down until I find the bones of the story. A story’s bones represent the narrative in its most basic form, one which transcends genre and convention.

Ultimately, my mental fan fiction represents a testing ground for my ideas. Once I’ve found the ideas in their most basic form, everything else is window dressing. After the idea is isolated, I can start weaving it until a more original narrative. For me, fan fiction isn’t a shortcut to a less original end – instead it’s a means to an end in a search for quality ideas in fiction.


Staying the Course, Part II

Despite my best intentions, I didn’t do well with either my winter walking or my writing last week. A cold kept me off my feet for most of last week, and even today, some freshly-fallen snow is making pretty hard to do much walking without slipping. Even so, I’ve decided the best course of action is to keep trying – day-by-day – even if the process feels discouraging in the present. Conveniently, that’s how my writing is going as well.

As I wrote a couple weeks ago, one of my goals is spend the year revising my latest project. However, I recently started making progress on another long-gestating project I’ve been thinking about for a while. My first instinct was to jettison my revisions and start writing. And I have to be honest – I came really really close to doing so. Fortunately, after listening to some old Writing Excuses episodes about revision, I decided to keep going on my revisions.

I did decide, however, to follow my own advice and be realistic about my goals. I’m not going to wait a year to be creatively fulfilled while slugging away at revisions. I wrote my current project while taking David Farland’s excellent online writing courses. I learned a lot about employing new writing strategies, such as try/fail cycles, hooks and effective settings. However, this required experimenting with my narrative, and I don’t believe all of the experiments were successful in the narrative as a whole. As a result, my project requires quite a lot of revisions – and possibly – rewriting.

So here’s what I’ve decided – I’m going to keep on revising my project. Fortunately, my writing group has given me no shortage of revisions to keep me busy as a while. But when it comes to rewriting, I am going to set this project aside for at least a year before coming back. It beats the alternative: slogging through rewrites with very little passion for my project. Plus, it gives me the opportunity to start fresh and apply what I’ve learned my own way. I am going to run my current project by my alpha readers to get a sense of what’s working in the current narrative.

Revisions are part of the writing process, but they don’t just apply to what I’m writing – they also apply to my goals. Ultimately, it’s a balance between what I want to accomplish as a writer and what I want to learn as a writer. This new strategy should give me plenty of practice with deep editing without disregarding the possibility of new projects for the year. We’ll see how it goes, but just like walking, it’s best viewed one step at a time.



How to Stay the Course

I hate the phrase “No excuses!” because it often doesn’t do justice to the reality at hand. For example, I’m doing an Arctic 500 Challenge at work with a goal to walk five hundred minutes during the month of February. It shouldn’t be a problem. I like to walk, and the cold doesn’t bother me. Except that it snowed last night and there’s just enough ice on the roads and sidewalks to make walking more than one mile an hour a hazard to my health.

I’m finding a similar frustration with my writing. I have a long road of revisions ahead of me, and my first instinct is to jump to another long-awaited project I’ve been planning to write. I might because I’m pessimistic my current project, and I feel starting fresh is the best way to learn from my mistakes. Except that I know, deep down, when I jump ship, I’ll be right back where I started in a year when revisions come up again.

So how do I plan to stay on course, whether it’s walking or writing? The answers aren’t so different.

Set a Minimum. For walking, it’s at least eighteen to twenty-five minutes a day. For revising, it’s four chapters a day. Both are sufficient for me to finish the project within a month (although that’s just the tip of the iceberg as for as revisions go). Regardless, setting the bare minimum serves two purposes. First, it gives me a way an easy way to accomplish my goal when everything else is getting in the way (more on that later) and second, setting a small goal gives me plenty of incentive to earn bonus point by blowing it out of the water when things are actually going my way.

Expect Delays, Frustrations and Road Blocks. Even with a minimum in mind, there will be days I don’t come close to meeting your goals. Case in point, there’s a winter storm expected tomorrow, spitting snow and freezing rain all over the area. So much for my walk. Again, this is why I hate the phrase “No excuses”, because it implies a need to power through even when it is inadvisable (or darn near impossible). I prefer a more realistic approach: stuff is going to get my way and I will be knocked out of my routine no matter how good my intentions are. The trick isn’t staying on – it’s getting back in the saddle and starting again. It’s a frustrating part of the process to be sure, but you have a better chance to getting back up if you know it’s coming.

Don’t Forget the Big Picture. While I’m committed to both projects, I have to remember they are both a means to an end – one to get healthy, and one to further my writing career. So the Arctic 500 is not my only chance to get active – I also do T25 on my lunch break. Similarly, I also look for writing opportunities which don’t conflict with my current project – like short stories and flash fiction. I also have a notebook to jot down ideas, even if I recognized it might be a while before I start on the next project.

Reaching a goal is never easy, when it takes a month, a year or even longer. Just like putting a project aside, having to stay on course is a frustrating inevitability. Ultimately, both moving from and staying on course require a good degree of realism and humility in order to see what really lies ahead – and to stay objectively positive in the process.